Hand in Glove; SOLO Taxonomy & Cooperative Learning

Action Research: Working with Berrymede Junior School has presented an opportunity to better harness the vast amounts of pupil knowledge made visible by Cooperative Learning.

Ever open to hand-carry any and all curriculum content and pedagogical approaches, Cooperative Learning multiplies the value of programmes as diverse as Read-Write-Inc, Talk4Writing, and Maths No Problem. However, one specific approach stands out. 

Unlike the above-mentioned schemes – specific to phonics, writing and maths – this unique approach mirrors the all-encompassing scope of Cooperative Learning. And like Cooperative Learning, it needs an avatar to manifest in the classroom.

This extraordinary approach is, of course, SOLO Taxonomy, which I have wanted to sink my teeth into since attending Laura Kearney’s workshop almost a year ago. (See “Me teaching! You Learning!” – When Teaching Meets Learning@NB2B conference…).


Cooperative Learning goes SOLO

So, what aligns SOLO so perfectly with Cooperative Learning? Ironically, the fact that they are polar opposites:

Cooperative Learning fashions an outward, physical aspect of learning – manifest as tightly organised peer-to-peer discussion, negotiation, presentation, Q&A, sharing, guiding, assisting, note-taking, and so forth.

SOLO Taxonomy fashions an inward, mental aspect of learning – manifest by its organising, qualifying and classifying the knowledge production resulting from this outward aspect.

Then, there is a less fortunate resemblance: Despite their superficial simplicity, both can be applied to anything, at any time, to achieve virtually any objective within their respective fields. As we know, doing everything all at once is seldom successful. Here’s a few items on the SOLO list: “plan teaching,” “assess and guide learning in relation to both functional and declarative knowledge” and “give proximate, hierarchical and explicit feedback, feed-forward and feed-up on learning” (Pam Hook First Steps with SOLO Taxonomy – Applying the model in your classroom, p. 11).

Hence, getting SOLO firmly embedded in your school is a time-consuming uphill struggle to first get everyone’s head around the underlying theory and then anchor practice consistently across all classrooms – on top of everything else you have to do.



To save time and effort, and to minimise risk of wasting both, the alternative is ongoing, costly consulting and coaching from an external provider (building in-school champions, etc. etc). For school leaders, short of time, mental and emotional resources and money, getting hooked on SOLO seems an overwhelming endeavour.

(As for deploying Cooperative Learning without adequate training, we have covered that in How to NOT benefit from a visit to Stalham Academy; a warning to desperate heads.)

Fortunately, I have recently been contacted by Berrymede Junior, a London school looking for a simple, practical way to embed SOLO. This has presented us with the opportunity  for an action research project to synthesise the power of Cooperative Learning and SOLO Taxonomy into an inexpensive, practical and straightforward deployment solution.


SOLO in a nutshell

So, what is SOLO? All references in this article are culled from Pam Hook’s First Steps with SOLO Taxonomy – Applying the model in your classroom.

SOLO stands for the Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome and at its most basic plane organises learners’ performance into four distinct levels of increasing structural complexity. This taxonomy not only makes it possible to identify the pupils’ levels at any given time, but it also makes it possible to classify teacher input. 

Levels 1 and 2 are referred to as Unistructural and Multistructural. These relate to the surface level of quantity: simple recall of factual knowledge or parroting teacher talk.



The difference between levels I and II is the amount of knowledge, from single ideas to multiple ideas, as opposed to the quality of knowledge (see below).

Level 3 is referred to as Relational. From simply listing and describing individual items, pupils working on this level have now moved on to be able to sequence, classify, explain, compare, contrast, analyse, relate, and apply information and procedures.

Finally, Level 4, Extended abstract, connects these relationship to broader knowledge, allowing learners to rethink and find new ways to use it as the basis for prediction, generalisation, reflection or creation of new understanding.


SOLO taxonomy overview


(Here’s a task for you to check your understanding: After reading this paragraph, which level best describes your understanding of SOLO and its connection to Cooperative Learning?). I am guessing most would now be Level 2, which is where this paragraph is pitched. However, if you are using Cooperative Learning in your current lessons, you may already be moving up into Level 3, making connections.

For more on SOLO, I suggest visiting Pam Hook’s website pamhook.com/.

Blinded by visible learning?

In order to assess pupil’s SOLO levels and maximise feedback to get those elusive 8 months of additional progress mentioned in the EEF Toolkit, you need to, literally, make learning explicit. Nothing generates more explicit learning than Cooperative Learning. Simply walking around in a class in the midst of any CLIP provides twenty times the information on learning any teacher can reasonably process. And we have not even touched the embedded production of written evidence.

Nothing organises and structures that information overload better than SOLO. When  teachers need to identify levels at a glance/eavesdrop, its far simpler than Bloom’s – and its alternatives, if you scan Terry Heick’s comparison. By using SOLO to classify and organise, you tap more fully into the assessment potential of Cooperative Learning.

In a nutshell, Cooperative Learning provides the high volumes of realistic data that SOLO needs, and SOLO increases precision, speed and scope of what you can do with the high volumes of realistic data provided by Cooperative Learning.


SOLO alone and together.PNG


Shared language?

So, what do we mean by “realistic data”? David Dideau, who famously back-pedalled on SOLO some years ago (Why I changed my mind about the SOLO taxonomy), notes that “teaching children a new cross curricular language of learning assumes that the terms we use mean the same things at different times and in different places.”

That is precisely why we should give teachers and learners a chance to find out what they actually mean. For fans of Bakhtin, the ultimate aim of learning is to help best develop a person’s thought process by allowing their “inner-voice” to flourish.  The inner-voice can only be developed effectively when it has access to a range of different “outer-voices” which can be synthesised, repeated and interpreted using the individual’s own language. (See Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1986).

David Oldham capture

The term “Shared language” comes up again and again in different contexts in this recent interview with headteacher David Oldham. (watch now)

Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns are ideal tools for teachers to micro-manage the expansion of the inner-coming-out. Ensuring a bridging of potential gaps in perception between teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil mitigates the very real risk described by Dideau.

Above every deep is a surface you need to break

Being able to generate revolutionary new thinking and seeing links and connections between different concepts and ideas are utterly dependent on the depth and breadth of what pupils know. In the words of Dideau, “teaching pupils how to analyse in isolation is pretty pointless. They need to have something to analyse.”

For more on how Cooperative Learning promotes simple recall of factual knowledge, see such posts as Cooperative Learning; Closed Questions,  Closed Achievement Gaps and Deconstructing the Progressive-Traditional Dichotomy; a note to Mr Peal. So, I am pleased to note that, like me, Pam Hook and other principal proponents of SOLO identify such surface understanding as absolutely necessary to move on to the deep learning of levels 3 and 4.

Here, we need to again negate the misapprehension that Cooperative Learning is all about pupils venting random opinions completely out of context. I still remember a hilarious example of such by HMI Alan Brine taken from an RE lesson where pupils had been asked where they wanted to go on pilgrimage, where the majority had honestly answered “vacation.” It simply says to the teacher moved ahead before the surface understanding of SOLO Level I was in place: Define “pilgrimage.”

Cooperative Learning is a surgical precision tool to let the teacher generate high volumes of observable learning outcomes. SOLO, the Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes, is a simple, tried-and-tested way to get more out of those outcomes.

Below are some relevant questions you might ask yourself about this article. 

Some illustrative SOLO questions

Now imagine a trusted colleague with whom you could bounce your thoughts back and forth, adding, checking, sharing, suggesting?

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*) Pam Hook, First Steps with SOLO Taxonomy – Applying the model in your classroom, 
Essential Resources Educational Publishers Limited, 2016.  pamhook.com/.



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